Fire all but destroys landmark rail bridge
One of the most unique railroad bridges in the United States was burning on Friday morning as Utah Rail officials puzzled over the reason for the fire.
The bridge, which crosses Gordon Creek and carries tracks to the now shut down mines near Hiawatha, was reported on fire to Carbon County dispatch around 1:30 a.m. Friday morning. Rudy Sandoval, the state fire warden for the area was informed and arrived at the site about 2:30 a.m.
"It lit things up around there," said Sandoval. "The fire was really going."
State fire marshal investigator Troy Mills, who said there was no other possible ignition source except arson, flew over the bridge taking photos later that morning just before the helicopter he was in started dumping water on the fire.
"You can see where it started near the middle tower," he stated. "There are spread marks and holes in the ties where they are burned more. It's obvious that an accelerant was used to start the fire."
Helper City sent their water truck to supply water to a portable tank near the fire so the Bureau of Land Management helicopter that had been dispatched out of Moab could dump water on the blaze. But by the time crews were able to start getting any meaningful suppression on the fire about 10:30 a.m. Friday morning the vast bulk of the wooden ties that line the bridge were burned. As officials watched the blaze large chunks of ties fell into the gorge starting small fires below that were quickly handled by Sandoval and his crew.
Damage to the bridge, which was constructed sometime between 1913 and 1917 when the rail line was completed, is severe and whether the steel structure of the bridge will be compromised can only be told after an inspection.
"We haven't run a train over the bridge in two years, because right now there is nothing to haul from the Hiawatha area," said Tim Erchanbrack, vice president of transportation for Utah Railway. "But someday we figure we will be needing it again. This will cost at least several hundred thousand dollars to repair."
Whoever started the fire, if captured, will face some serious charges, and some of those charges will be federal. The FBI was on its way to the scene to conduct an investigation. Crimes against railroad property and personnel are federal offenses.
Paula Henry, the president and general manager of Utah Railway was at the site and also said that the railway would make finding who started the fire a priority.
"We will be offering a substantial reward for whoever comes forward with information leading to the conviction of the person or persons who did this," she stated.
On Monday morning Erchanbrack said that the fire was out late Friday afternoon and that the railroad monitored the bridge throughout the night to make sure it wasn't going to cause any further problems.
"Over the weekend we secured the area with fencing on the ends of the trestle and also secured the below the structure to be sure no one could be injured by falling debris," he said.
For those that might have information pertaining to the fire, a call to 801-380-0575 will put them in touch with a railroad official or they can call the FBI in Salt Lake City at (801) 579-1400.